Authority, or the lack thereof

Over at Pontifications, my old college roommate and debating partner Michael Liccione has posted an article, “Is it enough just to happen to be right?” that raises acutely the crisis of authority in Anglicanism. I commend it, and the discussion that follows, to you all. His article raises issues that I have been wrestling with for awhile and have been planning to write on here, following up on the discussion of the authority and ecclesiology of the Articles that I have recently posted.

It has been more difficult for me to post anything of substance of late (a problem I hope to solve this week); in the meantime, I offer below a (slightly amended) version of the reply I posted in the discussion on Pontifications. It can serve as preview of some of the matters I will be posting on in the (I hope) near future.

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I think Michael comes close to capturing the Anglican dilemma, but not quite.

Historically, Anglicanism has held that a) the church did speak authoritatively and infallibly in her true ecumenical councils, but that b) the ability to hold a “true” council has been in remission due to schism and the failure to resolve certain outstanding issues. So the question is not, do Anglicans have an infallible authority, but under what circumstances would they recognize such an authority being exercised? And of course, it leaves open the question of what constituted a “true” council in the past and just how many there have been (the usual answers have been four, six or seven, depending).

This worked more-or-less well (some would say rather less than more, but leave that aside for now) for several centuries. It allowed an “evangelical” wing of Anglicanism to develop a practical doctrine of sola scriptura even if such a doctrine is not to be found in any Anglican forumulary (and no, “Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation” is not sola scriptura), while Anglicanism’s “catholic” wing, working without an active magisterial authority, often veered from guidance by Tradition (via the Vincentian Canon) into mere traditionalism or antiquarianism. It left both of them unprepared to deal with the crises raised by the effects of scientific advance on human society, in particular in the realm of sexuality, and both “wings” were thus sandbagged (at different times and over different but closely related issues) by the same sort of “liberals” (for lack of a better word) that plague the Roman Catholic Church; indeed, I believe it has been documented that some RC “liberals” actively encouraged recent changes in Anglicanism, hoping to use us a stalking horse (thanks, guys).

Thus Anglicanism has been performing a delicate balancing act for 500 years, declaring that somewhere out there, there must be an infallible authority, but a) it is not a possession of the Church of England or the Anglican Communion, and b) wherever it is, it isn’t in Rome! Or so things stood, until in recent years when, in an attempt to provide a post hoc justification for the “ordination” of women, such notions as “reception” and such documents as the Windsor Report have introduced, by sleight-of-hand and through the back door, an ecumenical authority heretofore unclaimed by Anglicanism.

It remains to be seen whether the Anglican Communion has sufficient inner resources to correct itself. Article XIX, which declares faith in a visible church (an important and often overlooked point), also states that “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” If that is true, then there is no reason why the same cannot be said of the Anglican Communion, and certainly of the Episcopal Church.

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